Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Why "Planet Terror" Doesn't Work

This post, by the way, kind of assumes you saw "Planet Terror", Robert Rodriguez's contribution to the interesting-but-flawed film 'Grindhouse'. And it was, in fact, interesting...but flawed. What was the flaw? (Apart from casting the human particle board known as Rose McGowan in the lead female role, that is.) Simply put, it's the flaw of the script's actions not following its words. Slightly less vaguely put, it's that it's not enough to have characters telling you that a female character is strong, powerful and self-reliant, you actually need to have her being strong, powerful and self-reliant. Even if the film's text is about female empowerment, it's not going to matter if your subtext is sexist as all hell.

Basically, for those of you who haven't seen the film, it centers (more or less) on Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer who discovers her true calling in the middle of a zombie outbreak caused by a theft of biological weapons gone wrong. She becomes a rough, tough zombie-killing cyborg with a machine gun for a leg (replacing the limb that was torn off by zombies, natch) who leads the human resistance to safety. Sounds nice and feminist, right?

Except for one thing. El Wray. El Wray (played by Freddy Rodriguez, no relation to the director) is Cherry's ex-boyfriend, who makes a point of telling her how strong she is, how tough she is, how powerful and resilient and charismatic and heroic she is...um, while he's, um, actually doing all the heroic stuff. He rescues her from the hospital, he literally forces her to stand on her foot and prosthetic leg while she's sitting there moping, he rescues her another two or three times, he finds her the machine-gun leg, and her heroic plan for guiding the refugees to safety? It's his plan. She follows it after he tells her, with his dying breath, to become their heroic leader.

Seriously, that's the end of the movie. "Become a charismatic and heroic leader, Cherry." "Yes, sir." There's just no way to make that scene work, because it undercuts itself.

And this is the difference between feminism as text and feminism as subtext. Lots of horror movies have a text that isn't particularly feminist--they have psycho killers with mommy issues galore, axe-wielding maniacs, and guys who love to kill women for fun. But when the female characters respond by fighting back and killing the killers, that shows them, through their actions, to be strong and resilient and powerful. Whereas if they aren't actually strong, resilient, powerful people, just having someone else in the film talk about how great they are isn't going to ring true. That's why "Planet Terror" doesn't work. It doesn't ring true.

(That, and it's not nearly as cool as the trailers that follow it. Why are those not on the DVD, dammit?)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shortpacked Is Right!

You know how all the "Who's Who" entries describe Batman as an "Olympic-level athlete"? Does that apply to every Olympic sport? I mean, is Batman an Olympic-class curler, able to throw the rock with pinpoint precision down the ice?

If so, who would his sweepers be? Robin and Nightwing, obviously, but who would his third be? Batgirl? Alfred? I think there are probably rules against it being Ace the Bat-Hound.

And who does Batman play against? Perhaps Mister Freeze and the Penguin, but who else would make up that team? Not Killer Croc; reptiles go into torpor in winter. Maybe they'd have to make up new villains just for the epic curling match between good and evil, like "The Dirty Sweep" (opposite of a clean sweep, of course) and "Black Ice" (the faster you chase him, the more dangerous he is!)

Or maybe I'm on the wrong track, here. Maybe Batman wouldn't be curling against other villains. After all, Captain America is an "Olympic-level athlete" too.

DC Vs. Marvel: All-Curling Edition!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Storytelling Engines: Secrets of Sinister House

(or "Original Title: Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire")

The storytelling engine of the original "Sinister House of Secret Love" (later re-titled "Secrets of Sinister House") isn't as crazy as it first appears. Like any anthology title, the key to SHoSL is in striking a tone that will inspire numerous stories from a variety of different writers in a hurry, and the original concept for SHoSL certainly was a memorable one--mixing the romance comic with the horror comic is striking, you have to admit.

Of course, it sounds like a fairly unlikely marriage at first (unlikely marriages actually figuring into each of the first five issues.) When one thinks of the classic "romance comic", one thinks of dreamy-eyed young girls meeting Mister Right (after five or so pages of complications) and when one thinks of the classic "horror comic"...well, 'Tales From the Crypt' is probably the archetypal horror comic, and you generally don't think of romance much there. Cheating spouses, dismemberment, murderous axe-wielding zombies, body parts strewn about like confetti, yes. Romance? Not so much.

But if you go back a little ways to the roots of the two genres (and SHoSL did exactly that) you find that they used to be very close. The gothic novel, which eventually grew into the modern horror genre (yes, I know, that's something of an exaggeration, but it's close enough for our purposes) was filled with beautiful young women for whom the horrific fate wasn't necessarily death, but a lifetime of marriage to a beastly brute of a man. The hero's job, as often as not, was to thwart the bad wedding and ensure that the girl wound up with the right man (usually the hero.) Alternately, female protagonists would have to find some way of banishing the curse that made their man so beastly, and allow the noble and courtly lover within to show his face.

Cutting away the bleeding walls, pacts with Satan, and general gloomy atmosphere, that's pretty much the modern romance story in a nutshell. Star-crossed lovers meet, there are lots of complications, and then everything is resolved in a way that lets true love bloom forth. SHoSL just takes the concept back to its tangled roots to create a new horror/romance anthology that could, or should, appeal to both boys and girls.

So what went wrong? Why did "Secret House of Sinister Love" get retooled into "Secrets of Sinister House" after only five issues, dropping the romance theme and introducing a new horror host, Eve, in a desperate attempt to cash in on the popularity of "House of Mystery" and "House of Secrets"? (An attempt that failed, by the way--the title folded after fourteen more issues.)

Simply put, it was a case of bad timing. The romance genre was already on its last legs by 1971, the year that SHoSL first came out. The Comics Code forced romance comics to tame themselves the same way horror comics had, and the Sexual Revolution made tame romances seem downright dull. Horror comics managed to eke out an existence until the Code changed, but the Comics Code wasn't about to adapt to the Pill, swingers, and Penthouse Magazine. The romance comic faded and died, and by 1971, launching a new comic with "LOVE" in the title was like putting a big notice on the cover, "Hey, young boys that are our new core audience! There's icky mushy stuff in here!"

As a result, despite a clever core concept and a good storytelling engine, SHoSL died a quick and painless death. Even so, it's fondly remembered by horror aficionados...and with good reason. The timing might have been bad, but the concept was great.

Friday, February 12, 2010

This Should Get Me Some Hate Mail

You know, I'm not saying that Alan Moore wasn't cheated and robbed of his intellectual property rights by a loophole in his 'Watchmen' contract...I'm just saying that someday, I too would like to be cheated and robbed in such a way that gets me enough money to buy my own house in the country.

"Oh noes! They continue to promote and reprint my work again and again, making it a multi-generational best-seller! CURSE THEM!"

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Best Watchman Adaptation Ever (spoilers for "Heroes")

Surprisingly enough, it's not the movie "Watchmen". That actually ranks a distant fourth, behind "Watchmen: The Motion Comic" in third and "not doing an adaptation of 'Watchmen' in the first place" in second. (Hint: I was not impressed with the movie "Watchmen".)

No, the best adaptation of 'Watchmen' was the first season of "Heroes". I don't think it was deliberate plagarism, but I do think that Jeph Loeb, who was a major player in the first season of NBC's super-hero drama, was heavily influenced by the classic comic book series (he's gushed openly about the book in interviews.) And what he came up with turned out to be a remarkably good treatment of Alan Moore's mini-series.

He ditched a lot of the things that wouldn't work for an audience unfamiliar with the tropes of comic books (the capes, the retired heroes, the code-names...things that worked great on the printed page, but much less well on screen.) Instead, he used a lot of tropes familiar to TV fans--shadowy conspiracies, secret agencies, and rich families with great power and greater ambition. The fundamental concept, though, remains the same--an altruistic, powerful individual who's seemingly withdrawn from the public eye (metaphorically in the case of Ozymandias, literally in the case of Linderman) asks the question: What percentage of the populace is it acceptable to kill in order to bring about a Golden Age? And, having answered the concept to his satisfaction, he proceeds to carry it out.

Of course, as a continuing series, "Heroes" can't actually pull off 'Watchmen's ending of destroying New York. (Although, from what I've heard about subsequent seasons, maybe they should have just ended it like that...) Instead, it cleverly uses prophecy in a variety of forms (Charles Deveaux' prophetic dreams, Isaac's drawings of the future, Hiro's time travel) to create a concrete sense of the consequences in the audience's mind if the heroes don't succeed in stopping Linderman's plans. It also creates a clever ambiguity in the prophecies that it can exploit for dramatic tension--since Sylar and Peter have essentially the same powers, is it going to be Sylar's deliberate act that destroys New York, or Peter's out-of-control abilities?

Ultimately, as with 'Watchmen', all the various interweaving threads come together in a tense showdown, with plenty of dramatic payoffs as the various characters have to make their own moral choices. It ends differently than the comic, of course, but so did the movie. And at least this one didn't have giant blue penises.

Monday, February 08, 2010

My Personal Star Wars Canon

Hot on the heels of last Thursday's 'Star Wars' post comes...another 'Star Wars' post! This is actually something I've been thinking about for a long time, ever since I posted my list of sequels that shouldn't be considered canonical back in...oh my gosh, was it really September 2008? Wow, time really flies. But it got me thinking about what I consider to be my personal 'Star Wars' canon, out of all of the sequels, prequels, books, comics, and general Expanded Universe material. And my answer is...

'Star Wars'.

No, really, that's it.

Because when I watched the first 'Star Wars' movie, I imagined a whole universe around it. I pictured the next movie, where the victorious Rebels took the fight to the Empire throughout the universe. I imagined the romance between Luke and Leia, and Luke's final battle against Darth Vader, the man who killed his father. I imagined all sorts of things, and every single tie-in and sequel and prequel since then has taken away a bit of my imagination and replaced it with someone else's. And I've decided to take it back.

Just think of all the benefits I get from thinking of it this way:

  • The kiss between Luke and Leia is no longer creepy and incestuous.
  • Leia remains the smart, brassy, ass-kicking hero of 'Star Wars' instead of becoming the whiny, useless girl who just needs a Big Strong Man to give her some lovin'.
  • I no longer have to care about the obvious plot hole in 'Empire' where Vader refers to himself in the third person just so Lucas can have a big third-act shock to leave his audience hanging.
  • My Ewoks are awesomer than your Ewoks. (Yes, I still have Ewoks. I love the little bloodthirsty cannibal warriors.)
  • Midichlorians? What midichlorians?
  • Jar Jar? Who's that?
  • Boba Fett is not a loser who gets taken out by a blind guy with a stick.
  • My Clone Wars actually involved fighting against clones.
Feel free to list your personal canon, and the advantages thereof, in the comments! (Or, alternatively, feel free to tell me I'm a crazy person who's betraying Lucas' vision in the comments. But be aware, you will be defending Ziro the Hutt.)

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Contentious Statement of the Day

No matter what George Lucas says in interviews, I believe that Darth Vader was not originally meant to be Anakin Skywalker; in fact, I think he was basically an afterthought in the first "Star Wars" movie whose role was greatly expanded based on fan response to the character. If you watch the original film without the dubious benefit of the Expanded Universe backstory, he's clearly meant to be a minor thug compared to the real villain, Grand Moff Tarkin.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Many Apologies

As some of you may have noticed, there was no Thursday post last week; while I don't generally apologize for late posts, I do feel that it's my responsibility to make sure that whatever was here last Thursday isn't still the top of the blog come the next week. I had planned to post something Friday, but inclement weather in North Carolina made the weekend even more hectic than originally expected. (Stupid inclement weather.)

But as it happens, I'm not the only person to be making apologies today! Let's dive into the big bag of apologies and see who else has something to feel bad for!

Dear Humans,

Really sorry about the whole "acid for blood" thing. It's totally our fault, we drank something like six billion Mountain Dews and then topped it off with some Sour Patch Kids. Next time we'll take a Tums.

Sincerely,

the Aliens (Queen, Warrior, and little "Chesty")

Dear Comics Fans,

Sorry about the delay on "Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do". I know you must have been so excited about it, and it must have been just as bad as those delays on "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen". I'm sure you were really waiting with bated breath for the last...oh. Not so much? Oh. Not even a little bit...? Oh. Well, sorry about the delay anyway.

Sincerely,

Kevin Smith

Dear Historians,

Sorry for the apoplectic fits, heart attacks, and brain aneurysms. But hey, "This! Is! Sparta!" was a really cool line, right? We'll try to make the sequel a little more accurate. (Well, sure, there's gonna be a sequel. Did you see how much that movie made? I dunno, maybe Leonidas was stabbed with "time spears" or something. Oh, crap. Just lost a dozen more historians.)

Sincerely,

Zach Snyder

Dear Marvel,

Sorry about the "time bullets" prank. I didn't really expect you to publish it!

Sincerely,

Ed Brubaker

...and last but not least...

Dear Everyone,

Sorry for being so awesome. I'll try to be slightly less awesome in the future, but I can't promise anything.

Sincerely,

Simon Pegg